The general condition of your dog's skin and coat are good indicators of his health. A healthy coat should be shiny and smooth, not brittle or coarse, and healthy skin should be supple and clear, not greasy, flaky, or bumpy. Although health and nutrition influence the shine and texture of your dog’s coat from the inside, regular grooming and skin care on the outside will also help keep your dog's coat clean and free of tangles, no matter what type of hair coat he has.
What are the types of hair coats a dog might have?
Selective breeding has led to the development of dogs with various types of coat characteristics. Some breeds have hair that grows continuously and does not shed, such as the Yorkshire Terrier, Shih Tzu, and Pekingese. These breeds require regular trips to the 'doggy salon' for a shampoo and cut. Breeds such as Siberian Huskies, Alaskan Malamutes, and many Retrievers have long, thick hair coats with an outer coat of guard hairs and an undercoat of fine hair that serves as an insulating layer. These breeds often go through two heavy seasonal shedding cycles yearly (late spring and late fall), during which much of the undercoat falls out in clumps. Many short-haired breeds lack a distinctive undercoat and often shed hair at low levels all year round.
How does nutrition influence the appearance of my dog's hair and skin?
The skin is the body’s largest organ, and the cells of the skin turn over rapidly. For most dogs, virtually all the skin is covered with hair, either being shed regularly or, in non-shedding breeds, is constantly growing.
"For most dogs, virtually all the skin is covered with hair, either being shed regularly or, in non-shedding breeds, is constantly growing."
To maintain the skin and hair in a healthy state, your dog requires a properly balanced diet that contains high-quality digestible proteins, carbohydrates, fats, minerals, and vitamins and provides the appropriate number of calories to meet his energy needs. If the nutrients are not digested well and are of poor quality, not only will they be unavailable to meet the body's needs, but they will also cause the liver and kidneys to work harder to eliminate the indigestible waste products. The ideal diet should be individualized to your dog's life stage (i.e., puppy, adult, senior) and health status.
In all cases, quality and balance are the keys to good nutrition. A dog whose diet is inadequate to meet his dietary needs will have a dull, dry hair coat and often shed excessively. For more information about dog nutrition related to specific conditions, it is recommended that you consult your veterinarian.
What role does health play in the appearance of my dog's coat and skin?
Illness or stress, especially if chronic or long-standing, will affect the appearance of your dog’s coat, particularly its shine and texture. Many dogs will shed excessively when under stress. Some of the more common examples of diseases that can affect your dog’s coat include hormone imbalances or other metabolic problems (hypothyroidism), digestive disturbances, such as chronic diarrhea, internal (intestinal worms) and external (fleas, ticks, mange mites) parasites, and cancer. Arthritis or obesity can cause skin problems, such as dandruff or matting, if the dog cannot groom himself.
Many skin conditions will affect the shininess and the appearance of your dog’s coat. Allergic skin disease and seborrhea cause itching and changes in the production of skin oils, resulting in a dull coat and excessive shedding, either in patches or over the entire body. If an underlying health issue causes your dog’s skin or coat problem, they often improve dramatically when the illness is brought under control through treatment, which may include dietary changes.
What role does regular grooming play in the appearance of my dog's coat and skin?
All dogs benefit from regular grooming to remove loose hairs and dead skin cells, keep the coat free of dirt, debris, and external parasites, and distribute natural skin oils along the hair shafts. Dogs with long, silky, or curly coats require daily brushing to keep their hair from becoming tangled or matted, especially around the ears, in the armpits, or along the back of the legs. Dogs with short hair coats may require less frequent brushing. However, daily brushing of any dog that sheds will dramatically reduce the amount of loose hair and dog dander floating around the home and the amount of hair the dog swallows while self-grooming with his tongue.
Regardless of the type of hair coat, you should inspect your dog's coat every few days to ensure no tangles or clumps have developed under the armpits, in the groin, or behind the ears. After a romp through the grass or in the woods, look for burrs or twigs that might have become trapped in the coat and could cause irritation.
"Regardless of the type of hair coat, you should inspect your dog's coat every few days to ensure no tangles or clumps have developed under the armpits, in the groin, or behind the ears."
If you regularly check your dog's coat and skin, you will have a better chance of detecting any unusual lumps and bumps, parasites such as fleas and ticks, or sensitive areas on your dog's body.
How often should I bathe my dog?
Most dogs require bathing on an occasional basis, usually when their coat becomes dirty or when they develop a 'doggy odor'. Non-shedding breeds with no health issues usually need a bath every six to eight weeks, during their regular grooming. Dogs with heavy undercoats benefit from bathing in the spring and fall, when they undergo seasonal shedding.
How often your dog needs to be bathed will vary with his age, lifestyle, type of hair coat, and underlying health status. If you have a young puppy who accidentally soils himself, he absolutely should be bathed. A dog may need a bath after a stroll through the mud or a romp in a dirty pond. Some dogs enjoy rubbing their head in decomposing debris in the park or rolling in objectionable objects and will need a bath before coming back in the house! Finally, if your dog has allergies, your veterinarian may prescribe frequent bathing as part of the treatment regime. For some, daily bathing may be necessary until the problem is under control.
Dogs should only be bathed with a shampoo formulated for use on dogs—their skin has a different thickness and pH (acidity) than human skin. Human shampoo, including baby shampoo, is far too harsh for their skin. For regular bathing, a hypoallergenic shampoo without added perfumes is best. An aloe and oatmeal shampoo is often recommended. For optimum results, a conditioning product should be applied afterward to restore any lost moisture to the skin and minimize the development of dandruff after the bath.
"Dogs should only be bathed with a shampoo formulated for use on dogs—their skin has a different thickness and pH (acidity) than human skin."
If you find that your dog requires frequent bathing, consult your veterinarian, who may recommend using a special shampoo, conditioning rinse, or 'dry shampoo' to prevent skin problems associated with repeated baths. For specific information about grooming or bathing your dog, see the handout "Grooming and Coat Care for your Dog".
Why does my dog have skin and coat problems at certain times of the year?
Some dogs suffer from skin irritation related to dry winter conditions, particularly the lack of humidity in our homes. Other dogs that have allergies to pollen from trees, plants, or grass may develop skin problems during the pollen season. This may occur in the spring with tree pollen or during summer or fall for plant pollen allergies.
Some dogs are allergic to fleas and other biting insects and can develop a rash or patchy hair loss with a single insect bite. If you bathe or groom your dog and the skin or coat problem returns quickly, bring him to your veterinary clinic for an examination.
Sometimes, skin problems such as excessive dandruff, doggy odor, a greasy coat, or excessive shedding can indicate an underlying problem. Sometimes, this problem will be easy to diagnose and treat, but occasionally, the underlying disorder can present a diagnostic challenge and might require referral to a dermatologist. Once the underlying problem is diagnosed, the appropriate treatment can be prescribed to control your dog's symptoms.
Your take-home message is that your dog’s general coat appearance may be the first indicator of health problems. A healthy dog does not shed excessively and has a shiny coat free from dandruff or greasiness. Before you reach for the shampoo, think about whether that lackluster coat could be telling you something else. If you have any concerns, contact your veterinarian.